Barbara Paulson: One day more than a decade ago, Ernie Rodriguez visited his friend Dave in the hospital. Dave was recovering from a blocked carotid artery.
Ernesto: I remember walking into that room and there is a weight to the room. It’s like, “I want to get out of here as quickly as I can and we really don’t want to be here very long”. As I looked around, it’s like the walls were bare, the curtains were white, and there was this little TV off in the distance. I remember saying to him, “Dave, they ain’t even give you binoculars and watch TV with.”
Barbara Paulson: It was after that visit that Rodriguez had his epiphany.
Ernesto: I left visiting him in the hospital and we went up to the redwoods to go hiking. I felt so nurtured by the forest. I’m sitting in this little clearing and thinking about Dave laying in that hospital room and thinking about how you would think you would feel anxious in the forest. Yet it was such an extremely opposite feeling that I thought, “My word, why can’t hospitals feel like this? Why do they have to feel like the creepy places that they are?”
Barbara Paulson: And even today, Rodriguez physically recoils when he visits a hospital.
Ernesto: My whole body tenses up. When I walk into a hospital. Bleak is that word I think that describes what most hospitals.
Barbara Paulson: And so it may seem surprising that Rodriguez spends so much of his time in hospitals. It’s because he’s on a mission to help transform them. He wants to change hospitals from places where sterile rooms and lifesaving medical equipment often scare patients and make their stress hormones sore. He’s convinced hospitals need to recapture their role as centers for healing and he thinks photography is key to that goal.
Ernesto: Photography has the power to transform. I think it has the power to heal people. We’re such visual creatures.
Ernesto: Come on this way, this looks great.
Barbara Paulson: We’re in a eucalyptus grove overlooking Lovers Cove, a marine preserve on California’s Catalina island. The water looks as clear as when Doris Day filmed The Glass Bottom Boat here in the 1960s.
Ernesto: So the fun part is doing the photography.
Barbara Paulson: A cruise ship floats in the cove like a giant piece of flotsam.
Ernesto: Now I’m gonna tilt the camera up 30 degrees, I’m gonna go around a circle …
Barbara Paulson: Rodriguez is a world class photographer whose work is exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. But his real passion is exploring the natural wonders of the world. He brings back images of staggering beauty.
Ernesto: And then the canopy of trees up above us.
Barbara Paulson: Rodriguez is on to something. There’s scientific evidence to backup his belief that photography has the power to heal. After his epiphany in the California Redwoods, he returned to his home on Catalina Island and stumbled on the work of a scientist named Roger [Ulrich. 00:02:58]. Ulrich compared recovery rates of two groups of patients who had their gallbladders removed. Both groups had window views but one group healed faster. The difference? The patient who recovered more quickly looked out windows onto lush green trees. The patients who took longer to recover? Their windows looked out on a brick wall.
Ernesto: The first thing they teach you in medical school is that the body heals itself. So in order for that to happen, really, you can’t be under stress ’cause stress releases other hormones that don’t let the body’s healing mechanism kick into place.
Barbara Paulson: Ulrich’s seminal study was published in 1984. it was the same year that biologist Eo Wilson famously argued that humans are biologically wired to have a positive response to nature. It’s the flip side of the stress response. This scientific evidence about nature’s role in reversing stress launched a major rethink of hospital design. One that encouraged the introduction of hospital greenhouses and rooftop gardens, all of which made Rodriguez wonder …
Ernesto: Well, what if we show pictures of nature to people? Does this have the same phenomena? Lo and behold, it does.
Barbara Paulson: But how to put this idea into action?
Ernesto: Then the light came on. It’s like, you know somebody saying, “That curtain that goes around the patient bed is the thing that is so influential in the feeling of that room because it walls you off from other people. And what if there was a nature scene out in that? Would that be beneficial to people?
Barbara Paulson: Rodriguez figured out how to transfer giant photographs of nature scenes onto curtains for hospital emergency rooms to literally surround the patient with natural beauty. But he had no idea how to introduce his idea to the world. Then one day on a ferry ride home to Catalina, he met a friend who’s daughter work with Jane [Malcon, 00:04:50] a world famous hospital designer and the pioneer in the campaign to bring nature into the great indoors of a hospital setting.
Ernesto: I mean, I didn’t know who Jay Malcon was. I show up like the Beverly Hillbillies In her office in La Jolla and, and I’ve got this… my prototypes under arm and open it up and her jaw dropped and she goes, “Young man”, she goes, “you brought 40 years of research to life.”
Barbara Paulson: At the Catalina Island Medical Center near Rodriguez’s home in the town of Avalon, the emergency room has used his hospital curtains since 2004.
Nancy, Chief Of Patient Service, Catalina Island Medical Center: So this is what the patient sees.
Barbara Paulson: That’s Nancy, a registered nurse and the Chief Of Patient Services here.
Nancy: Most people are very, very frightened when they come in the emergency room. Just having a curtain like that that has such a beautiful view or a scene on it, will help people to relax a little bit more.
Barbara Paulson: Rodriguez’s latest idea is to print his giant photographs on ceiling tiles so patients can look up at 360 degree views.
Ernesto: So when you’re laying there, it’s like you’re laying in the forest, looking up or you know, you’re laying there looking up at … under the grow coconut trees.
Barbara Paulson: And yet many hospital designers remain skeptical about installing nature scenes.
Ernesto: So you’re dealing with this fixed mindset that is the biggest challenge to overcome, of people who are in charge of decorating hospitals. Whatever their sensibility is, that’s what they’re going to do. And nevermind the research.
Barbara Paulson: Rodriguez’s company, Serene View, is attracting converts. He’s won awards for innovation and major healthcare providers seek him out.
Ernesto: The challenge is something I think about every day. It’s like, how are we going to move this forward? And I can see doing this till I’m looking at a curtain myself in a hospital and you know, stepping out.